Thursday, September 16, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #16 - Cara

After leaving Ailsa Craig we motored over to Campbelltown. The guide had claimed he was a close personal friend of Paul McCartney. So I called his bluff by telling him to take the guests up to visit High Park Farm. Off they went, and an hour later I got a call that everyone was in the Campbelltown lock-up for trespassing. I bailed them out - gave the cop a bottle of Springbank -  and soon everyone was back aboard.

From Campbelltown we motored around the Mull of Kintyre. And as we did we had to avoid the island of Sanda, which once had a pub and welcomed visitors, but no longer. Four hours later we came to our destination, the tiny island of Cara. 

As we got closer to Cara the profile of a strange stone could be seen halfway up the slope below the island's highpoint. It was the mysterious Brownie's Stone. On the hillside around it lay the scattered remains of a lightning-strike rock fall, or a meteorite, that may have produced the chair long ago. But the large chair-stone looked strikingly different from these rocks. So it’s possible that, like Tiree’s Ringing Stone, moved by glaciers from Rum, the Brownie’s Chair may have come from somewhere other than the island it now calls home.

I anchored Hjalmar Bjorge just off Port na Cille, chapel landing, at the north end of Cara. Once ashore, the guide led the guests up to Cara House (early eighteenth century). Once a headquarters for smuggling, it has recently been remodeled by the owner.

Next to the house stood the 500-year-old ruin of the chapel of St Finla, also known as the Cell of the Holy Trinity. The yellow-lichen-covered walls of the chapel still stand, but just barely, as the chapel had been desecrated in the past and used as a kitchen for Càra House. In The Antiquities of Gigha,(1936), the Rev. R. Anderson suggests that the St Finla the chapel is dedicated to may be St Fionlagan, the sixth-century patron saint of the MacDonalds of Islay. As shown in the following photo, some restoration work has been done to the chapel. The lower image is from 1996, and the upper is how it looks today.

The guide had a strange experience here when he first visited the island back in 1996. A tiny microlight aircraft had landed next to Cara House. He'd tried to hitch a ride, but the pilot was not obliging.  Afterwards he learned that Customs and Excise had investigated the incident, so smuggling was still an issue in the area at the time, Ireland being a mere 25 miles away.

The guests were eager to see if, as tradition says, a wish made while sitting on the Brownie's Chair will come true. So the guide, who'd be wishing for a big tip at the end of the cruise, led everyone south across the bracken-infested island to find the chair. 

After passing the shore of Poll an Aba, the pool of the abbot, they came to a large, strange-looking boulder on the hillside: the stone throne of Cara, also known as The Brownie's Chair. 

One by one the guests climbed up to take a seat and make their wishes. I can't tell you whether or not they were granted. But I do know that the guide's wish for a bonanza in tips did not pan out quite as he'd hoped. I had to confiscate it to pay his outstanding bar tab. 

'

Once back aboard ship we lifted the hook and made the short trip up to Gigha; God's Isle, as the name is said to mean. If things went as planned, we'd pay a visit to the Bodach and Cailleach, the old man and woman of Gigha, who've stood watch over the island for centuries.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #15 - Ailsa Craig

We were delayed getting away from Holy Island for a few weeks. Just before we were to sail, the guide jumped ship. He'd been enchanted by the beautiful Buddhist Warden on Holy Isle, and decided to join up. At first, the 'No Alcohol' rule had deterred him from joining, but he decided he could do what the Castaways on Taransay had done, and cross over to the mainland every weekend to visit the pubs.

The first time he tried this they caught him. For punishment they made him sleep in a cold, drafty, mildew-ridden cell: hard ground for a bed and a stone pillow. That did not bother him at all, as he said it reminded him of some of the Oban hotels he'd stayed at in the past.

The next weekend they caught him trying to go on another pub crawl. They asked me for a punishment that might be so horrific that the guide would quit the monastery, and return to the ship. I knew just the thing, and sent a note to the Lama telling him the guide's Achilles heel, his Kryptonite.

The next day the guide rejoined us in a belligerent mood. He'd quit monkhood, renounced his vows. When asked why he told us there were two reasons. The first was that the beautiful island warden had repeatedly spurned his advances, and after being told to "Get lost" twenty times he'd finally given up. But the last straw had been this morning. The refectory menu for the coming week listed fish pie for every meal. (My note to the Lama had been received.)

So with a light scattering of clouds overhead and smooth seas ahead, we set out from Holy Island to Ailsa Craig. As we approach Ailsa, hundreds of gannets are seen circling high over the summit. Like its twin, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, Ailsa is home to a large gannetry.


The boat is nosed up to an old timber dock built for servicing the lighthouse, the rusting remnant of a crane at its centre. We step onto the dock and carefully walk over the slippery moss-grown planks to the shore. From there the overgrown tracks of a narrow-gauge railway leads to the lighthouse, which we follow past a small building in which sat the stationary engine that once powered the railway.

To the right of the engine house is a large brick building. Its arched red tin roof is half missing, and several large iron tanks are set into the ground beside it. This is the ruin of the gasworks, where mineral oil was heated with coal in retorts (large pressure cookers) to produce the gas that powered the lighthouse. The gas also powered the pumps that sent compressed air to the foghorns on the north and south side of the island. Unfortunately, the construction of the works obliterated most of Ailsa’s religious history, as they are said to stand on the site of the island’s church and cemetery.

The lighthouse enclosure lay just beyond the gasworks. The Stevensons built the lighthouse in the 1880s, and it was manned for over 100 years. As we wander around the buildings, some open and derelict, some securely locked, we saw no signs of Ailsa’s famous brown rats. In his book Stargazing, one of the keepers, Peter Hill, recounts his first sight of them in 1973, ‘My jaw dropped in amazement when I saw the rats, thousands and thousands of them, racing about in the beam of the light.’ 

We leave the lighthouse to start up to the summit. After a ten-minute climb in the sweltering mid-day heat, Ailsa Castle comes into sight, perched atop Castle Comb, 400 feet above the sea. The three-storey tower, which dates to the sixteenth century, rises to a height of thirty feet and is fifteen feet square. Its main claim to fame comes from an attempt to establish Ailsa as a base for a Spanish invasion. 

In 1592, fourteen men landed on the island, led by Hew Barclay, the Catholic Laird of Ladyland, forty miles away on the mainland. He had brought his men here to take and surpryse the island and house of Aylsaie, a place of good strength whych micht much annoye the west parts of Scotland.’ In addition, he planned to ‘sett up and manteyne ane public Masse, quhilk should be patent to all distressed papists, and to provide ane place of releife and refreshment to the Spanyart.

Unbeknownst to Barclay, twenty men were laying here in wait. When the conspirators stepped ashore they were attacked. Barclay drowned during the skirmish, as did all hopes of establishing a Spanish base on the island. The entrance on the north side of the castle lay five feet off the ground. Using projecting stones as toe-holds, we boost ourselves up and scoot onto the first floor. A square opening to the cellar is easily stepped over to reach the spiral stone staircase. The stairs are in surprisingly good condition and take us up to the second floor. But we could go no further, for the top floor has collapsed. From a window opening on the second floor we have an airy view down to the lighthouse.


After leaving the castle we follow a path that leads up the hillside for 100 feet to a level patch of ground. Here we find the castle well, overflowing with clear water. 

Once past the well, all traces of the path disappear. The guide seems to know where he's going (at least he says he does), so we follow him on a gradual traverse up the steep hillside. Eight hundred feet above the sea we come upon a patch of level terrain, a sheltered slot in the hillside known as Garraloo. At its centre lay Garra Loch, a small pond of scummy water. (Garra may come from the Norse garôr, meaning fertile.) It appears to be a popular watering hole for the birds, and several hundred take flight as we walk by, serenading us with a deafening chorus of squawking, along with a fertile rain of guano.

After climbing another 300 feet the summit comes in sight, the trig-pillar at the top surrounded by a stone windbreak. Clouds are scudding south from Arran, so the view comes and goes every few minutes. In the swirling mist the Holy Isle of St Molaise, and the high summit of Arran’s Goatfell, occasionally pop into view. And from our high perch we can also see thousands of gannets circling above the cliffs.


After enjoying the view for a while the guide tells us it's time to return to the ship (in other words, he's getting thirsty). So we retrace our route down to the landing, Once aboard Hjalmar Bjorge we make a circular tour around the rock, passing along the way the southern foghorn, its trumpet mounted atop a large air tank. Also to be seen are the magnificent columns of basalt, even more impressive than those of Staffa and the Shiants.



Leaving the gannets of Ailsa astern we set a course around the Mull of Kintyre. Our next destination: Cara of the Brownie - if, that is, the guide does not cause any more problems.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Beehive Book Available

I have to interrupt our cruise for a commercial announcement. After long last—25 years of journeys, and 10 years of writing—my book on the beehive cells of the Hebrides is available from Acair.

See the following link for more information: Beehive Dwellings of the Hebrides

Friday, July 23, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #14 - Holy Island

From our anchorage off Brodick it is a five mile cruise to Lamlash, where we board the inflatable to head for the dock on Holy Island. Thomas Pennant, writing in the 1770s, had this to say of Holy Island.

The Lord of Buchanan gives this the Latin name of Molas from its having been the retreat of St. Maolios: for the same reason it is called Holy Island. Saint Maolios's cave, the residence of that holy man, his well of most salutary water, a place for bathing, his chair, and the ruins of his chapel are shewn to strangers; but the walk is far from agreeable, as the island is greatly infested with vipers.

Also known as Eilean Molaise, the island has been the destination of pilgrims for centuries. Our guide, who imagines himself to have been a monk in a previous life - or is it a rock star, I can't remember -  is anxious to take everyone to the top of the island, and then down to seek out the stone of judgement and the cave of St Molais. He has told everyone to be on the lookout for vipers. But if bitten, he'll have his special Adder Bite Antidote on hand for sale (only 10 pounds, secret ingredient Talisker).

In 1991 the Order of the Samye Ling Buddhists purchased the island, and they call their work here the Holy Island Project. They have enlarged the old farmhouse into the Centre for World Peace and Health, and it is one of two focal points of their settlement here; the other being the lighthouse buildings at the south of the island. And as we step ashore a young woman in brightly coloured robes greets us, asking we stay away from the south lighthouse, as a group is there on retreat.

From the Buddhist settlement we follow a path through a thicket of bracken that leads to the top of Mullach Beg, the island’s northern peak. Along the way we're treated with views across Lamlash Bay to Arran.


From Mullach Beg we drop to a saddle and then ascend the next hill, Mullach Mòr, at 1030 feet, the highest point of the island. On the slopes below are some of the island's wild Eriskay Ponies.



Coming down the southern shoulder of Mullach Mòr we pass through an area of stone crevasses hidden under dense heather. A series of ropes has been strung along the slope to guide walkers safely down.


On the shore below stands the Inner Lighthouse, which protects the passage between Holy Island and Arran. In a clearing on the hill above it stands something striking; an elegant square house, painted red, with circular rock gardens decorating its grounds. This is the private dwelling of Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, and only used when he is in residence on the island. The guide almost quits on us here - saying if this is how monks live he wants to join up. But he changes his mind when we tell him alcohol and licentious living are forbidden fruits for a monk.


At the foot of Mullach Mòr we turn east to walk to the Outer Light, which flashes east over the Firth of Clyde. It is also known as Pillar Rock, and as we approach the tower we scare away several of the feral Saanen goats munching on the grassy slopes. 



Built in 1905, and automated in 1977, Pillar Rock was the first square-towered light built by the Northern Lighthouse Board. (They were cheaper to build. Curved walls require custom interior fittings to match.) With a range of twenty-five miles, Pillar Rock can be seen throughout most of the Firth of Clyde, and as far south as Alisa Craig.

We retrace our steps west to follow a path that bypasses the Inner Light. The engine room of the lighthouse, where an air compressor once powered a foghorn, has been converted to a shrine room. It would have been fascinating to see, but we’d been asked to avoid the buildings, so we move on. As we carry on up the coast we encounter several stones decorated with Buddhist art. One displaying the mantra ‘Om mani peme hung.’ 



A bit farther along we encounter Green Târâ. With a full moon behind her the green aspect of Târâ Drölma, the Saviour, sits on a lotus embraced moon-disk. Her left hand, raised to her heart, forms the mudra (sign) of protection and refuge. It also holds a blue three-blossomed utpala flower, showing she is the mother of all Buddhas; past, present, and future. Her open right hand lies at her side, palm out; a sign of generosity, of offering all one’s needs. She is wearing rainbow coloured stockings, and her left leg, held close to her centre, shows she renounces earthly pleasures; while her right leg, partly extended, is a sign she’s ready to come to the aid of the needy.

We then came to a shallow, fern-shaded pool beside the path. The water that filled it welling up from the earth, the excess flowing over rocks to the sea: St Molaise’s Well. There was once a cistern below it used by pilgrims for bathing, but it was destroyed by vandals. According to tradition the water is a curative for many ills. But in recent years a 'Health and Safety' sign has been posted warning the water "may" not be safe to drink.

Just beyond the well lay the Judgement Stone, a flat-top boulder with four seats carved into it. Certainly not a table someone would sit at to eat, as implied by some of the descriptions out there. The people seated on the stone would have faced away from the table, their backs to its centre. The guide goes up the small rock steps behind the stone and precariously slides onto one of the seats. It's judgement time. We give him a 5 out of 10 as a guide, and he skulks off into the brush. 

After a short search we find him hiding in Saint Molaise’s Cave, the strong scent of Talisker in the air. He tells us he'd been bit by an adder, and had to un-cork some of his snake bite antidote.

We go down a short flight of steps to the cave floor, which is paved with rocks set firmly in the dry, brown earth. The rock face above the cave shows the scars of centuries of graffiti; some chiselled in with great effort, most scratched in with little thought. St Molaise lived in this grotto, but he had not been buried here, on this, the island of his sanctuary. He is said to rest on Arran, under St Molaise’s church at Shiskine, ten miles due west of the cave. 

On leaving the cave we continue north along a section of the path that is called the Wheelbarrow Road, as that’s how supplies are brought to the retreat centre at the lighthouse. Before boarding the RIB to return to Hjalmar Bjorge we take a look to the south, and our next destination: Ailsa Craig.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #13 - Arran

We leave Bute in our wake to set a course to the south. After an hour of motoring the hook is dropped in Brodick Bay. (Fortunately, the chain is attached). We go ashore, where the guide is anxious to lead everyone on his favourite walk on Arran: The Glen Rosa Circuit.

From Brodick it's a two-mile road-walk to the start of the Glen Rosa Trail. The guide tells us the road-walk would be a good warm-up for the steep climb to come, and gives us the directions, saying he'll follow along in a bit.  As we make our way along the road a taxi flys by, with someone who suspiciously looks like the guide inside. Once we reach the Glen Rosa Campsite, where the mountain path begins, we find the guide waiting for us (he says he knew a shortcut). The trail gets off to an easy start, the boot-beaten path gradually ascending next to the winding Glenrosa Water. 

After three miles we come to a fork in the path. A right turn leads up to The Saddle, the way to climb Goatfell, or carry on through to Glen Sannox. The 2,866 foot summit of Goatfell is hidden in clouds, so we take the left fork. It makes a steady climb, rising 1400 feet over one mile. That takes us through the heart of Fionn Coire to the high ridge between the peaks of Cir Mhòr and A’ Chir.

There we are faced with a difficult choice. A right turn leads to Cir Mhòr (2600 ft), via the Rosa Pinnacle, and then on to Caisteal Abhail and Ceum na Caillich, also known as The Witch’s Step. In addition to the Witch’s Step, and nearby Broomstick Ridge, there are dozens of Arran place names guaranteed to make a climber drool: Pagoda Ridge, Portcullis Buttress, Rosa Slabs, the Bastion, the Rosetta Stone, and the Devil’s Punchbowl. If you fail to climb any of those you can always settle for Consolation Tor or the Cat Stone. 

Since time is short (we need to be back aboard ship so the guide can take his nap), we turn left to follow an exhilaratingly airy, narrow ridge-top path to the south. Five minutes later, at an elevation of 2000 feet, the path split, and another decision has to be made. The left fork makes a challenging 300-foot knife-edge climb to the summit of A’ Chir. We are beat in the heat—it is a sweltering 25 degrees—and we’ve already climbed 1800 feet in over six miles. The guide is getting tired, so we take the right fork.


That route leads around the west shoulder of A’ Chir. In a matter of minutes 300 feet of hard-earned altitude is lost as the trail drops down dusty, sun-baked slabs of granite before climbing steeply back to Bealach an Fhir-bhogha, Bowman’s Pass. In times past deer were driven up through this narrow pass. Archers, lying in wait, picked them off one by one as they charged past. Damn unsportsmanlike, if you ask me.

The view is spectacular; the massive bowl of Coire Daingean lay at our feet, dropping 1600 feet to the headwaters of Glenrosa Water. The clouds had thinned over the past hour, and the summit of Goatfell looks clear and inviting. But that would have to wait for another time. We can also see Holy Island rising from the blue-green waters of the Firth, our destination for the next day.

According to the map there is a route from Bowman’s Pass down to Glen Rosa. But nary a path is to be seen, just dusty slopes too steep to safely descend. Just as we think the guide has gotten us lost we come across a trail that drops east to the summit of Beinn a’ Chliabhain, Creel Mountain (2140 ft). 

We do not want to leave the airy heights, but the time has come to start down. The ridge path to Beinn a’ Chliabhain leads to another high ridge above Coire a’ Bhradain, Salmon Corry. Five-hundred feet below us, like veins leading to a heart, a half-dozen streams can be seen trickling down the corry, the headwaters of the often salmon-filled waters of Garbh Allt. 

It was a joy to be walking downhill for a change; and so, happy as midges at a nude beach, we descend to Cnoc Breac, Trout Hill. As you can tell, there are certainly a lot of fishy names on Arran. (I'm surprised there’s no Pike’s Peak.) From Cnoc Breac the terrain gradually transitions from rock, to heather and grass. After descending another 700 feet we reach the cascading waters of Garbh Allt, and are soon back at the road. The guide then redeems himself, as he's arranged for taxis to take us back to Brodick. But then he tells us he forgot his wallet, so we have to take up a collection to pay the cabbies.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Virtual Cruise 2021 - Island #12 - Bute

I nosed Hjalmar Bjorge into the sea-lock of the Crinan Canal yesterday, and they wouldn't open up. I went ashore and was told the ship looked too big for the canal. The maximum length allowed is 88 feet. At 76 feet, Hjalmar Bjorge is well under that. The maximum width allowed is 20 feet, and at 19 feet, 9 inches, we have a good 3 inches to spare. No problem for a master mariner like me to manage.

After some arguing with the lock-master he finally relented, but only after I ensured him I had the requisite £1M liability insurance. (I think I paid the premium.) And so we entered the canal, where we tied up in the Crinan Basin for the night next to my old ship the Vital Spark. The guide immediately jumped ashore to accompany Hurricane Jack, one of the crew of Vital Spark, into the Crinan Hotel bar. 


I then invited the Vital Spark's current skipper, Para Handy, and two of his crewmen, Dougie and Sunny Jim, to come aboard. They had just returned from Colonsay, where the midges were terribly fierce at the moment; as they were on that calm, warm, summer evening in Crinan. 

"By Chove! but they're bad the night!" said Dougie, running a grimy paw across his forehead. "Perfectly ferocious!" said Para Handy, slapping his neck. "Oh, criftens!" whimpered Sunny Jim, in agony, dabbing his face incessantly with what looked suspiciously like a dish-cloth; "I've see'd mudges afore this, but they never had spurs on their feet afore. Para Handy then chimed in with an observation that "There iss a spachial kind of mudge in Dervaig, in the Isle of Mull, that hass aal the points o' a Poltalloch terrier, even to the black nose and the cocked lugs, and sits up and barks at you."

The next day we start out on the seven-mile journey through the canal's next 14 locks, 13 that you have to operate manually. We immediately run into a little trouble at the first of the Dunadry locks: we got stuck. The three inches spare width I thought we had did not account for fenders; and, due to the fresh water in the canal the ship has a bit less free draft. I need to make the ship float a little higher, so the guests are all ordered ashore. That helps a little, but we are still unable to make any headway. So I get out my supply of harnesses and horse collars, a set for each guest, and have them tow the ship between each of the locks. (This is one of my advertised 'Special Nautical Experiences'. For £100 the guests can take their harness home as a memento of this special day.)

Six hours later we reach the end of the canal at Ardrishiag Basin. As the guests re-board I offer a free bottle of water as a reward for all their hard labour. In short order we are steaming south down Loch Fyne. Once past Tarbert a turn to the southeast takes us over to Bute, where we anchor in Dunagoil Bay on the southern tip of the island. 

After anchoring, the guide is woken, and we make an easy landing on the grey sands of Dunagoil Beach. A 20 minute road-walk leads to St Catan's Monastery, which was founded in the 6th century. The main ruin here is St Blane's Church (12th century).



There is an odd tale about the parentage of St Blane. As the story goes, St Catan's sister Ertha became pregnant by an 'unknown' man. On the orders of Catan, so it is said, Ertha and her new-born son Blane, were set adrift in an oarless boat. They eventually washed up on the shores of Ulster, where Blane and his mother spent the next seven years. They then retuned to Bute, where they were warmly greeted by St Catan. Many years later Blane would succeed Catan as abbot. Read what you will between the lines. 

After exploring the ruins we cross to the base of a 70-foot cliff that stands northwest of the monastery. Nestled below it is the Devil's Cauldron, a circular structure 30 feet in diameter. There is something about place names with 'Devil' in them that attracts. Scotland has several, like the Devil's Staircase and the Devil's Elbow, and this one on Bute. To quote from Robert Angus Downie's Bute and the Cumbraes

The Deil's Cauldron is a massive circular wall, nine feet thick, of huge unhewn blocks, enclosing a roughly circular space about thirty feet in diameter. It is said to have been a place of penance, and may have been put to that use in monastic times, though it was not the original function of the place. The age of the Deil's Cauldron - also called the Dreamin' Tree Ruin, Druim an Tre being the Gaelic for little ridge dwelling - is unknown; but it was probably formed at an early date as an inner stronghold for use when the place had to be defended.

Some kind of stone structure once stood here that pre-dated the monastery, and was subsequently incorporated into it. As for its 'devil' name, perhaps monks in the old days were sent to it for penance. Or maybe it was a place of retreat, similar to the Hermit's Cell on Iona; or an isolated place to be tested against the devil, like St Patrick's Purgatory.

In the 1860s a hoard of gold coins was found nearby. Intent on striking it rich, the guide had brought a shovel. I confiscate it, and reiterate, yet once again, that he needs to lead the guests on a walk. As they set off to follow a stretch of the West Island Way - the best trail name in Scotland- I get to work digging.

And so, after seeing the mysterious cauldron, the group (minus the skipper) follows the West Island Way to the top of Suidhe Chatain, the hill of St Catan's Seat. There they are greeted by a view east to our next island destinations: the Great and Little Cumbraes, whose minister once prayed: "O Lord, bless and be gracious to the Greater and the Lesser Cumbrays, and in thy mercy do not forget the adjacent islands of Great Britain and Ireland."

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Note: The conversation with Para Handy is from Neil Munro's 'Mudges'.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Islands 7 thru 11 - The Garvelachs, Belnahua & Fladda

My apologies for the long delay getting away from Jura. The guide went missing two weeks ago. He'd told us he was going off to climb the Paps, but after no sign of him for ten days we had to search the island. We finally found him passed out in the Isle of Jura Distillery. As he boarded the ship a loud clanking came from his bulging backpack, so we had to do a strip-search. The good news is that the ship's bar is now fully stocked with some of Jura's finest.

And so we weigh anchor to once again traverse Corryvreakan, Safely across, we motor up the west coast of Scarba, passing along the way a small bay, Port Uarrachan. On its shores are the ruins of a small settlement of beehive cells, possible once a hermitage associated with the monastery of Iona: a remote place Columba could go to escape the tourists. As we continue to the north a low-lying string of four islands become visible: the Garvelachs, also know as The Isles of the Sea.

We make our first landing of the day on Eileach an Naoimh, the rock of the saints. The main landing is in the sheltered Am Port, at the head a creek fed by St Columba's Well. Set twenty feet above the shore, the well is always fresh.



A short trek inland leads to a display that depicts what the monastic enclosure here looked like in the 5th century. But before entering the enclosure we follow a side track up to the massive double beehive cell. the largest of these fascinating structures in Scotland. (An arrow indicates the beehive's location.)



Once inside the main enclosure we find the chapel that dates to the eleventh or twelfth century, though some references say it had been part of the original monastery, which would make it much older. The interior is twenty by ten feet, with a small window opening in the east wall above where the altar would have been. The following photo shows the chapel set within the original oval enclosure. The large structure in the foreground is a farmhouse built of stones robbed from the monastic ruins.


In the grassy earth near the chapel lies an underground chamber, which is actually a buried beehive cell. Patrick Gillies, in his book Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood, describes it as follows:

Close to the chapel is an underground cell called Am Priosan (the prison), and tradition tells very circumstantially the mode of confining prisoners. There was a large stone in the bottom of the cell with a V-shaped depression; the prisoner placed his clasped hands in the hollow, and a wedge-shaped stone was securely fastened down over the palms of the hands, and so tightly that it was impossible to extricate them: the whole arrangement was called, A' ghlas laimh (the hand-lock). Probably, however, the underground cavity was a well, or maybe a cellar for storing the "elements.

A monastery with a pit prison for misbehaving monks. I like it. As a skipper, I wish I had such a dungeon for misbehaving guests (and crew). I can certainly banish them to the engine room, but then they start fiddling with the machinery. One of my previous guides, who'd been sent down as punishment, tripped on a fuel valve, partially starving one of the engines. We were spinning in circles for an hour until I figured out what had happened. 

After exploring the island we climb to its highest point, St Brendan's Hill. From there we can see Garbh Eileach, our next destination of the day. 

The skipper is still trying to set a record of five islands, and so we're soon back on the water to land at the small slip below Garbh Eileach House. It is the only occupied house on the Garvellachs, but no one has ever been home on the occasions when your skipper has landed. The next photo shows the house, and to the right the burial ground known as Cladh Dubhan (marked with an X). Patrick Gillies wrote the following about the graveyard:

On the island of Garbheileach there is a very old graveyard known as Claodh Dhubhan (the burying-place of Duban). More than one prince and certainly one king of Alban was called Dubh; and Dubhan seems to have been a common name; while in 927, Dubthach, son of Duban, fourteenth in descent from Conal Gulban the great-grand-father of Columba, became Superior or Co-arb in Iona.


At the north end of Garbh Eileach we get a good view to our next destination, the tiny, but once mighty Dun Connel.


An hour later finds us atop Dun Connel, on a large grassy plateau where, to quote John of Fordun writing in the fourteenth century, ‘the great castle of Dunquhonle’ once lay. Several earthen mounds, covered with green turf, lay separated by boggy sections of ground rampant with nettles and tall grass. A few stones lying here and there were the only remnants of Dùn Chonnuill’s once great fortress. This small piece of ground has seen a lot of history. A Lord of the Isles had been imprisoned here seven centuries ago, and thirteen hundred years before that it had been the stomping ground for the warriors of Fingalian legend, led by Conall Cearnach, cousin to Cuchulainn. It was Conall who avenged Cuchulainn’s death by killing ‘ten and seven scores of hundreds of the men of Ireland.’




With everyone back aboard we are about to set off for Belnahua, island number four for the day, when we encounter a minor technical difficulty. The winch refuses to turn, and so there is no way to automatically raise the anchor. But it is a problem the cunning skipper easily solves. During our hurried hikes across the last three islands Hazel and Liz had complained about the pace. For punishment I attached push-bars to the capstan, and had them manually crank the 2000-pound anchor aboard. It only took an hour.

Belnahua, island number four, lay only two miles to the east. So in short order we're setting foot on the slate-shard beach of Belnahua.

In the nineteenth century millions of roofing slates were exported from the Slate Islands to destinations in Europe, North America, Australia, and the West Indies. Initially, wooden wedges were pounded into cracks in the rock at low tide. When the tide rose the wood swelled and the rock split. The pieces were then carried above high water for further splitting. And as they dug deeper into the earth walls had to be built between the quarries and the sea to keep them from flooding.


The ruins of a dozen structures lay scattered about the island, and one by one we enter them all. Belnahua had a school and a store, and at one point 150 people lved here. Above the largest quarry sat the ruin of the powerhouse. It once pumped water out of the pits, and powered a winch to drag out stone. The powerhouse had two storeys, and most of the machinery sat on the upper floor; a complicated matrix of hand levers, winding gears, and drive shafts, all rusted solidly in place. The equipment had been steam powered, and a large boiler tank sat at the back of the building.


After having traipsed across four islands the guests are dragging a little, and mutinous murmurings of miscontent are heard. The skipper wants to set a small-ship cruise record of five islands in a day (he'll get a trophy), so to quiet them down he threatens to make them eat the guide's cooking. The guide is as lazy a cook as they get. When forced to prepare a meal it's always cold sardine sandwiches and beer. 

We then land on island number five, Fladda, an island completely dominated by its 1860 lighthouse. Although it was automated in 1956, the two keeper's houses are still intact, and used as holiday homes. The large walled garden, once tended by the keepers, is now an overgrown mess. But it's a beautiful mess; the garden entrance framed by massive fuchsias, blooming bright red. It's said that the carrots the keepers once grew here were also bright red. 


The wind is from the east, so for the night we tuck up next to the coast of Luing. The skipper, to celebrate his five island record, sets out a few of the bottles of malt the guide had purloined during his unaccounted for time on Jura. In the morning I intend to take Hjalmar Bjorge through the Crinan Canal. The lock master says the ship might be a bit big for the canal. We'll see about that . . .